12 May 2012

Clapping Madness

Reviewing a live performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in Singapore last week, Chang Tou Liang took time to complain about the applause.  It seems that, even before the final strains of this majestic work had died away, there was the usual chorus of impetuous screams and ululations more appropriate to goal-line success on the soccer field than a considered response to an intellectually and emotionally challenging work of art.  Tou Liang considered this to be an example of “crass one-upmanship”; and I know exactly what he means.

One of the reasons I have described Singapore’s classical music scene as Provincially Amateurish is because of the presence in most audiences of a few self-appointed clever people who assume the majority of the audience lives in ignorance and needs to be led to applaud at the right moment.  Their assumption may or may not be correct, but it certainly implies that some Singaporeans, at least, regard their fellows as provincially amateurish and in need of elucidation when it comes to classical music. 
The result, of course, is not only wildly inappropriate applause – standing ovations for mediocre performances, cat-calls and whistles for a sublime clarinet solo in Mozart, tribal ululations for a cultured Viennese symphony – but, in a determination to get in first at all costs (presumably to show the perpetrator is not provincially amateurish) actually interrupting the end of the work with the applause.  Music, we should all know, begins in silence, ends in silence and achieves beauty only by its continual reference to silence.  Get rid of the silence and you destroy the beauty.

Commenting on inappropriate applause in this blog a while back, Kevin Thompson came up with this intriguing observation; “Breaking into a percussive, cacophonous noise seems so wrong in that situation.  It's fine for sporting events and rousing speeches, but isn't there more harmonious way to express ourselves after a sublime and subtle musical performance?” 
Certainly applause can be annoying, especially if you are one of those people (which I am not) who boils with rage whenever a couple of hands meet between movements in a concerto, or one who (as I do) likes to bask in a moment of reflected wonder when a great performance comes to its end.  But when all is said and done, applause is the life-blood of performing musicians who need it to keep their artistic antennae properly honed.  Performing musicians and critics are adept at recognising the hidden agenda behind an audience’s applause.  We can, for example, readily identify the genuine from the polite, the ecstatic from the raucous.  We recognise the screams of those who crave the attention of those on stage – either because they are friends or heroes – and identify the unconscious yell spurred on by sheer admiration.

As ever, that brilliant author Alexander McCall Smith puts it in a beautiful way when describing an audience’s response to a new work in his charming novel The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. “People could smile with relief at the end of an unsatisfactory piece, and even applause could be provoked by sheer joy at being released from something one does not like”.  More amusingly, Smith makes this wry observation when the new work in question ends on an unresolved chord; “If a composer does not resolve a piece then the applause should be similarly incomplete. One hand would be aimed at the other, but would stop short of actual contact; unresolved clapping”. 
I love the idea!  I’ll try it next time, and while it certainly will not offend my neighbours, it could, I imagine, incur the wrath of those around me who like to feel clever and recognise in a piece of unutterable rubbish the seeds of non-existent greatness.


  1. Oh dear, what a stickler I've become! The vocal ejaculations of "Bravo!" for the Bruckner, vociferous as the performance deserved, just came too soon. It shattered the short moment of silence (and reflection) the wonderful ending deserved.

    What is equally maddening is the lack of applause for a good performance, and that happens strangely in some Singapore Chinese Orchestra concerts, where a soloist's efforts gets short shrift. I remember a performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (yes, suonas took the place of oboes) when the applause just stopped the moment the pianist left the piano. Didn't the audience like the performance, or were they bewildered by the arrangement, or they just did not bother to applaud a performance they did not understand? Very embarassing, and very strange. (Of course, they cheered with great delight after the Yellow River Concerto that followed!)

  2. Earl Arthur Love18 May, 2012 01:10

    Singapore is not unique Marc. Last week I attended Wagner's Ring cycle at the Met and four orchestral concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In all eight instances clapping and wailing began before the end of each work.

  3. In the case of opera, the applause often starts the moment the curtain begins to come down - it can be better not to drop the curtain at all but to black out the stage. In concerts, the conductor and soloists keeping their arms raised might indicate that it's not over yet.

    I remember a performance of Norma in Florence many years ago when several members of the audience loudly shushed anyone who bellowed or started clapping prematurely - it effectively silenced the clappers but the shushing was almost as distracting!